A destructive decision in West Virginia v. E.P.A.
In recent years, Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., have done battle over two of the biggest Hall of Fame-less sports juggernauts. Atlanta got the College Football Hall of Fame; Charlotte snagged the NASCAR Hall.
Presumably, Euclid, Ohio, faced less of a struggle in landing the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame.
But here, ladies and gentlemen, are the first five of my top 10 natural phenomena, flora and fauna, that grab headlines an occasionally beat the tar out of natural ecological systems.
I give you my nomination for charter membership in the American Invasive Species Hall of Fame.
Kudzu smothers native plants in edge areas, depriving them of essential sunlight. (Credit: reophax/flickr)
Kudzu's debut was at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Its native grounds were Japan and parts of China. But its fragrant blossoms suggested there might be some market potential in the U.S. The fast-growing vine didn’t really catch on until the 1930’s, when the U.S. Soil Conservation Service recommended kudzu as ground cover for eroded land.
It was a staple for state highway departments in Georgia and elsewhere, but soon it became clear that its growth—vines lengthened by a foot a day—was uncontrollable. Limited in the north by cold winters, kudzu has begun to spread thanks to a warming climate. Its latest conquests include Oregon and Indiana.
Kudzu absolutely rules in “edge” habitats—the edges of forests, near roadsides or farm fields. It smothers native plants in edge areas, depriving them of essential sunlight.
With dozens of Dr. Seuss-like multicolored spines, this native of Southeast Asian waters turned up in the Caribbean in the 1990’s, then spread rapidly up the U.S. East Coast in the early 2000’s.
Lionfish tend to stick to reef formations, staying long enough to devour many of the native reef fish and crustaceans they can find.
Do you have nominations for the American Invasive Species Hall of Fame? Send them to Peter Dykstra at firstname.lastname@example.org or @pdykstra.
Those Seuss-like spines can deliver a painful sting. Lionfish are well-established enough that there’s little hope they can be removed. Some foodies, and the Wegman’s grocery chain, have promoted lionfish as a delicacy. But divers, keep your hands to yourself.
Cheatgrassis also likely a 19th Century import. It’s now found in 50 states, but in parts of the hot, dry grazing land of the Great Basin, cheatgrass can often rule.
Cheatgrass blooms earlier than native grasses and sagebrush, crowding out the traditional food for grazing animals. The “cheat” comes in when the cheatgrass abruptly and completely dies at the end of spring. The food of spring becomes the fire starter of summer.
The seed of cheatgrass features sharp barbs that keep veterinarians busy. Livestock can be harmed by barbs in the face and mouth. Ranch dogs’ paws have an annual running dispute with the seed.
Say what you will about fire ants, but at least they’ve paid their dues in a small way. They’re South American natives whose first entry points in the U.S. were probably the Alabama State Docks in Mobile.
They spread throughout the Southeast, creating impressively large colonies. Any human, dog or other creature who sticks a toe, a snout, or anything else near the colonies is begging for a stinging, painful swarm.
But the fire ants gave us E. O. Wilson, a young Alabaman whose fascination with the ants blossomed into a lifetime as a sublime communicator on evolutionary biology.
Chinese privet (Credit: Melissa McMasters/flickr)
Chinese Privet just doesn’t look or smell like a bad actor. Tall and fast-growing with sweet-smelling white blossoms, privet simply looks and smells like it belongs.
Privet belongs on this list because there’s so little acknowledgment that it’s a bad actor. Its roots outperform native vegetation, literally sucking the life out of other plants. Its rapid growth literally throws shade on those same plants. Insects, birds, and some small animals begin to look elsewhere for their food.
It’s still in most garden centers as an ornamental. Even some who are raising the flag on privet, like this prominent botanical garden, recommend eliminating privet by dousing it with glyphosate, a much-criticized herbicide.
There are also invaders who never lived up to their great initial expectations. In the 1970's, walking catfish and killer bees were allegedly poised to walk or buzz their way across the nation. Both failed.
Snakehead fish were supposed to haul themselves out of a Crofton, Maryland, pond in 2002 and menace freshwater fish. But like their walking catfish predecessors, they faced a ”Don’t Walk” sign. Just last year, Murder Hornets were all the rage. Now, it’s crickets on the murder hornets.
But my five invader nominees are for real. Next week, we’ll do five more, including a gigantic snake and a smaller one that’s reportedly bitten people in a most inconvenient place.
Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
Banner photo: Lionfish (Credit: Michael Aston/flickr)
How do you cut through the fog around climate change and get to a solution?
John Harte, a physicist-turned-ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, looks first to the mountains, then to the oceans and the ice, and then finally to the optimism that underpins so much political thought and action in the United States.
Speaking before the Humanist Science Committee in tiny Salida, Colorado, earlier this month, Harte used one slide to "demolish" deniers, one slide to show the real stakes—collapse of civilization—and the remainder of his chat to describe impacts he's seen from a lifetime of research in the Rocky Mountains and where he sees hope.
"There is no question that the course we have been on for the last 60 years will lead to a crash," he said. "But the alternative future is the careful transition to what we call a soft landing … where we need less than one Earth to support what we do on Earth."
But first, bad news: Global warming is going to be worse than we thought, Harte said. Various feedbacks related to a warming planet—from increasing wildfires to hotter oceans to thawing permafrost—are not understood well enough to factor into predictive models.
"This is scary. These models are likely significantly underestimating the rise in atmospheric temperature that will likely occur from our current levels of climate-changing pollution."
Harte, a senior researcher at UC Berkeley's famed Energy and Resources Group, has spent a lifetime connecting dots—studying flowers in high mountain meadows for evidence of increasing fossil fuel emissions, looking at the "smoke and mirrors" behind geo-engineering and carbon sequestration.
Solutions, he says, are more politically achievable than most would consider given today's polarized political environment:
"Who are going to be the economic winners 50 years from now? They're going to be the countries that made the greatest advances in solar energy and battery storage, in the technology needed to achieve a future without climate change," Harte said.
"Selfishly, for the sake of our grandchildren and the economy they live under, we should be doing these things."The talk clocks in at just over an hour. But it's a refreshing overview of a problem increasingly staring us all in the face.
When Ronald Reagan swept into office in a 1980 landslide, he appointed two contentious figures to run his primary environment agencies.
James Gaius Watt was a Wyoming attorney for the Western States Legal Foundation, a freemarket group known for hauling into court federal agencies like the Fish & Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Now, as Interior Secretary, he would be in charge of them.
Anne Gorsuch was a Colorado state legislator with a penchant for railing against government regulation. She became a central member of a group chided as the “House Crazies” for their strident pro-business, anti-government stance. In May 1981, she became the perfect counterpart to Watt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Fast forward: In January 2017, President Trump appointed Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary. The Montanan brought a John Wayne-type resume: Eagle Scout, college footballer, Navy Seal, and one-term Congressman.
Scott Pruitt, whom Trump appointed as EPA Administrator, had a career path that included college baseball, a law practice, the state legislature, ownership of a minor league baseball franchise, and Oklahoma’s State Attorney General. Not quite as star-spangled as Zinke’s, but Pruitt’s State A.G. tenure was marked by bellicose language and a streak of more than two dozen failed legal actions that he was then chosen to lead under Trump.
So 40 years apart, two presidents, bent on kneecapping federal environmental enforcement, get their wishes.
Back in 1981, Watt went to work, announcing intentions to narrow the Endangered Species Act. He also set out to open up more federal land to logging and ranching. In 1983, he announced a plan to open up every square inch of the U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling—even areas known to contain no oil or gas.
Watt drew furious opposition for his deeds and ambitions, but his ultimate undoing was his tendency for classic Washington gaffes. He canceled a July 4 Washington Mall concert by the Beach Boys because their fans were “the wrong element.” First Lady Nancy Reagan turned out to be a big fan, so he relented. An ill-timed joke that was both racist and sexist (and entirely unfunny) finally did him in.
His peer at the EPA, Gorsuch, mused openly about leading her agency toward its own extinction. EPA enforcement actions plummeted, as did agency morale. When a top Gorsuch aide, Rita Lavelle, went to jail in a case involving mishandled Superfund money, Gorsuch was toast.
The parallels with Zinke and Pruitt are profound but far from complete. In the Reagan Era, Watt and Gorsuch earned bipartisan disdain. Neither ever sought or held a significant office again.
When Zinke and Pruitt flamed out, there were no such restraints. As we approach midterm elections, there’s a good chance that Zinke will once again be a Congressman, and Pruitt a Senator.
Montana went from a single House seat to two after the 2020 Census. Zinke won the Republican primary for the seat last week.
When Sen. James Inhofe announced his retirement early this year, Pruitt filed for the election to fill in the four-year remainder of Inhofe’s term. He’ll face a crowded Republican primary field on May 28.
Remarkably it’s only been a few years since Zinke was under fire for accusing 30% of Interior Department employees of being “disloyal to the flag,” and that “radical environmental terrorists” were setting California’s record wildfires. Oh yeah, he was also accused of steering department finds to personal use. In a 2022 report, Interior’s Inspector General ruled Zinke had violated the department’s ethics rules multiple times.
Scott Pruitt’s excesses at the EPA included some exotic ones. An apparent obsession with security led to the purchase of a “cone of silence” phone chamber for sensitive calls.
So here’s the moral of this story: When 40 years ago, an EPA boss and an Interior Secretary worked to actively undermine their own agencies’ missions, at least we got the consolation prize of seeing Anne Gorsuch and James Watt bum-rushed off the political stage. (Well, not quite: Watt paid a fine and served five years’ probation for charges related to lobbying activities in 1996; Gorsuch left her son on the national doorstep: Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.)
Contrast that with today: In their party’s era of delusion and denial, it’s act-like-nothing’s-wrong time for Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt.
His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
Banner photo credit: U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)
In 1972, world leaders had gathered in Stockholm in an unprecedented acknowledgement that we were running into trouble. The gathering hammered out a weighty Statement of Principles. It was the first draft of an owner’s manual for planet Earth, but it left much to do.
Two decades later, the site was Rio de Janeiro. World leaders addressed the hopes for Rio:
“There are those who say economic growth and environmental protection are not compatible. Well, let them come to the United States.″ – U.S. President George H.W. Bush
″The ecological debt should be paid, not the foreign debt. Hunger must disappear, not man.” – Cuban President Fidel Castro
“We are ready to assume our share and hope other industrial countries will do the same. ... We are determined to live up to our responsibilities to developing countries.” – German Chancellor Helmut Kohl
″Developed countries have a greater obligation to find solutions and to transfer technology. ... Protection of the environment must respect the sovereignty and independence of each country.” – Chinese President Li Peng
Journalist George Monbiot was a tad more cynical about Rio’s rhetoric and intentions:
“It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It could be illustrated with rainbows and psychedelic unicorns and stuck on the door of your toilet. But without any proposed means of implementation, it might just as well be deployed for a different function in the same room.”
One of Rio’s major achievements became – at least in the U.S. – a bizarre political caricature.
Agenda 21 was a visionary, totally non-binding guidebook for environmental action in the 21st Century. It called for concerted action on climate, clean energy, empowerment of women, protection of habitat, abolition of illegal logging and fishing, and much more.
The guidebook may have been unrealistic on the very day it was published, but in the U.S., far right media figures and politicians saw Agenda 21as the guidebook for the sinister one-world government they’d always warned about.
Radio/TV firebrand Glenn Beck branded the document, which was endorsed by Bush the Elder and 177 other heads of state, as the Scripture for a new religion. Senator Ted Cruz cited the Agenda’s call for the abolition of golf courses, grazing land and paved roads. Others said Agenda 21 prescribed genocide as a population control measure.
Of course, scholars who had actually read Agenda 21 could find no hint of these things.
The most famous and enduring product of Rio was the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCC) which begat annual climate confabs which begat 1997’s Kyoto Protocol. The Agreement was under fire from the start for its sole focus on industrialized nations. Developing nations, even giants like India and China were let off the hook, with no requirements to reduce carbon emissions.Kyoto came under intense fire in U.S. political circles for its apparent double standard. The Senate, charged with ratifying treaties, held a non-binding vote on Kyoto. It lost 95-0. President Clinton never submitted Kyoto for a formal vote. With India and China excused and the U.S. playing hooky, Kyoto was never fully taken seriously.
UNFCCC also brought us the COPs. That would be the annual Conference of the Parties, known to most everyone as the "UN climate talks." Crucial meetings included the 2009 Copenhagen COP, where high hopes for progress were both dashed and overshadowed.
Climate denial groups released what they said were the highlights of thousands of climate scientists’ emails, suggesting that climate science was a cynical scam. Multiple investigations eventually cleared the scientists of everything except poorly-chosen email language and a little juvenile humor.
In the 2015 Paris COP, the Parties had reason to, ummmm, celebrate an agreement that saw comparatively strong commitments to greenhouse gas reductions. This was partly due to a strong showing from Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry.
Of course, Donald Trump’s capture of the White House in 2016 flipped the U.S. into the denier camp.
Rio also saw the creation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a quiet but vital body that monitors and identifies ecological hotspots; and the Statement of Forest Principles, a first crack at rulemaking for everything from turning the boreal forests into bathroom tissue to turning the Amazon into, well, stuff for sale on Amazon.com.
Rio also brought a new term into widespread use: “Sustainable development” became the buzzphrase for just about every constituency at Rio: If you’re a paper company, “sustainable development” meant how much Charmin you could squeeze onto a roll before you’d entertain the notion of restraining your business.
If you’re an environmentalist, it meant how much restraint you could demand on timber and paper companies. Or whether gasoline prices, closely following 1989’s Exxon Valdez disaster and the first Iraq war, would continue to rise past the inflation-adjusted $1.95 a gallon.
Greenwashing also came of age at Rio and at the 1990 Earth Day festivities, prompting PR campaigns suggesting that “BP” also stood for “Beyond Petroleum” and British American Tobacco’s acronym also stood for “A Better Tomorrow.”
Make no mistake, the Rio Earth Summit was a good thing. It focused worldwide attention on environmental problems and solutions in a way that doesn’t seem to happen anymore. But did it really solve any problems?
It’s 30 years later, and we don’t know yet. And that’s a problem.
His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
This month Colorado became the first state to ban the use of PFAS in the extraction of oil and gas.
While there has been widespread outcry about PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in consumer goods — such as stain- and water-resistant clothing, nonstick pots and pans, firefighting foam, carpets and furniture — the oil and gas industry could be a major and under-appreciated source of soil and groundwater contamination.
Last summer an investigation by the advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility revealed that the chemicals are often used in the fluids used to extract oil and gas from deep in the ground during fracking. The chemicals, which are extremely water-repellent, are used in fracking fluid to make the chemical mixture more stable and more efficiently flush oil and gas out of the ground at high pressure.
The chemicals have been detected in drinking water across the country, and in a broad range of food items including cow’s milk from small dairy farms, leafy greens and chocolate cake purchased from grocery stores. Plants grown in soil containing PFAS can uptake the chemicals into their plants and roots and make their way into human and animal bodies. PFAS don't break down naturally and are linked to illnesses including cancer, thyroid disease, obesity and ulcerative colitis.
Colorado’s new law passed with bipartisan support, and bars the use of PFAS in fracking fluid starting Jan. 1, 2024.
It also restricts the sale of PFAS in consumer products like carpets and furniture, fabric treatments, cosmetics, food packaging and children’s products, and mandates that the state purchase PFAS-free products.
“This law puts Colorado at the forefront of states taking action to stop the flow of toxic PFAS chemicals,” said Sarah Doll, National Director of Safer States, in a statement. “We anticipate other states to continue this trend.”
Despite widespread use in consumer goods and on military bases, PFAS in fracking has largely flown under the radar.
The report from Physicians for Social Responsibility uncovered PFAS in more than 1,200 fracking wells in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming between 2012 and 2020. The U.S. EPA approved the chemicals for use in fracking in 2011 despite concerns about their toxicity.
It’s likely the chemicals were also used in fracking wells in other states, but in some, like Pennsylvania, oil and gas companies are permitted to keep the list of chemicals used during fracking confidential, preventing a full investigation.
“It’s very disturbing to see the extent to which critical information about these chemicals is shielded from public view,” said Barbara Gottlieb, Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Environment & Health Program Director, in a statement. “The lack of transparency about fracking chemicals puts human health at risk.”
A subsequent analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer identified the use of PFAS in at least eight Pennsylvania fracking wells between 2012 and 2014.The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spent more than a year sampling water across the state to test for PFAS, focusing on locations where contamination was likely. The agency did not find widespread contamination, but did not include any sites near fracking wells in its investigation.
Representatives from the American Petroleum Institute and the Colorado Oil and Gas Institute responded to the report by Physicians for Social Responsibility last year, saying they agree that PFAS shouldn’t be intentionally used in fracking fluid and that they were not being used in Colorado wells. Even before the PFAS ban, Colorado had some of the most stringent fracking regulations in the country and has required public disclosure of the ingredients in fracking fluid since 2011.
Banner photo: The oil and gas industry holds a rally outside of the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Credit: Jesse Paul/flickr)